Home & Garden

These Paso students learn to grow, harvest and cook food — on campus

Virginia Peterson Elementary School Principal Melanie Crawford talks to students last June about photosynthesis in the sunflower plant. From left: Sausha Fair, 7; Jesus Ruiz, 7; and Jennifer Mendez, 8.
Virginia Peterson Elementary School Principal Melanie Crawford talks to students last June about photosynthesis in the sunflower plant. From left: Sausha Fair, 7; Jesus Ruiz, 7; and Jennifer Mendez, 8. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Do green beans grow on a bush or vine?

Students at Virginia Peterson School in Paso Robles would be able to answer that question. It’s both, depending on the variety.

“The Panda Garden,” named after the school mascot, is a unique and educational experience that offers hands-on lessons based on scientific standards. The 1/3-acre garden was started in 1999 by teacher Susan Young. Today the school works in partnership with Mariah Marten-Rae of One Cool Earth, who coordinates with teachers to create projects for children in all grade levels.

The Multiflora Club of Paso Robles provides grants to help pay for the garden; Bay Laurel Nursery, Lowes Home Improvement, The Home Depot and Big Creek Lumber donate supplies.

There are 36 raised beds, with each class responsible for two. Greenheart Farms supplies vegetable starts as needed. Classes also “adopt” the rest of the garden — row crops and peach, apricot, fig, plum and pomegranate trees. Tasty grapes and red pink roses grow along the chain link fence surrounding the garden.

One of the privileges for third, fourth, and fifth grade students — known as the “Green Team” —is to collect fruits and vegetables that the students would have thrown into the trash and dump them into recycle buckets. The waste is then chopped up and put into one of the six worm bins. Other yard waste is disposed of in the compost bin.

A butterfly bush planted near the wildflower bed of Candula, Larkspur and California Poppies attracts pollinators. A drought-tolerant bed has olive colored sage, Redbud and bright yellow yarrow. A rosemary bush is near the sensory garden, which is planted with apple mint, chocolate mint, spearmint and peppermint. The students are encouraged to touch the leaves and oh, they smell so good!

The beds are a mix of annuals and perennials such as deep red strawberries, golden sunflowers, and green topped garlic (which is sometimes braided and provided to the Paso Robles Culinary Academy).

Onions, lettuce, radishes, fava beans, tomatoes, kale, chard, pumpkins and wax beans fill the vegetable beds. Milkweed has been planted to educate the students on the life cycle of Monarch butterflies and the need for food for their caterpillars.

A weather station has been installed to track patterns throughout the school year, and students have just begun a science experiment by planting cabbages to find out which type of soil grows the best ones — worm compost or garden soil.

On the day we visited, second and third grade students were experimenting with cooking food in solar ovens.

The garden is a very peaceful place with students learning to work together as they plant and harvest the fruit and vegetables. The garden also fills a need for after-school activities, partnering with the After School Enrichment and Safety Program and the Sprout Scouts.

More than 180 kids visit the garden on various days of the week for an hour. By growing, harvesting and cooking, they not only learn about vegetables and fruits, but also how to work with others.22

Brian Cisneros, a teacher at the school, says they’re always looking for volunteers to help with the garden. You can volunteer at any time — even after the students have left for the day. If you’re interested, call Virginia Peterson School at 805-769-1250.

Tami Reece lives in Paso Robles and has been gardening and preserving its bounty for 30 years. Email her if you know of a unique, beautiful garden, garden show or celebration at rosepetalranch96@gmail.com. Please allow a minimum of six weeks for an event.


1. To create a garden at your school, have plenty of dedicated volunteers!

2. Create a regular schedule so each volunteer knows his/her responsibilities.

3. A school garden requires maintenance during all seasons, even summer, so plan accordingly.

4. Businesses want to donate to school gardens, so don’t be afraid to ask.

5. If you don’t have the space for a school garden, consider about Edible Landscaping (mixing edibles in the established school landscape).